Maybe Footy Just Isn’t My Metier

Ok, I’ll admit at the outset that I was lucky to get there. I was a good footballer, but not a great one, and in junior teams I played with plenty of kids much better than me who never got the same opportunity. But what the heck, when the ball bounces your way, what else can you do but run with it for all it’s worth?

Back in the days before the TAC Cup and the national draft, each VFL club was allocated recruiting zones from which to draw raw talent. My school was on the edge of Hawthorn’s zone and occasionally the club’s recruiting department would call the senior footy coach to ask if there were any up-and-comers they should know about.
In my HSC year, mine was one of a few names mentioned and I found myself invited down to Glenferrie Oval to play in a Metropolitan versus Country schoolboys match, a try-out for the Under-19 team. I had mates at school who were better players but they lived across the creek, in Fitzroy’s zone. Fitzroy didn’t call, Hawthorn did.
Looking back, I presume I had some awareness at the time of the enormous opportunity I was offered, but did not give myself a serious chance of being invited back. I had decent ball skills but I wasn’t particularly fast and had never dominated a match. I would have been excited enough by the experience itself and the prospect of a few pies and snags after the match.
The coach of the Metropolitan team was the recently-retired Hawk superstar, Peter Knights. His coaching assignment appeared to be something of a challenge because his kids from good schools in the leafy eastern suburbs were up against a hulking bunch of dairy farmer’s sons from Warragul and Drouin, some of whom had beards and should have had their birth certificates checked.
I started the game well and racked up a few possessions in the first quarter but I don’t remember doing much else to attract the attention of the recruiting staff in the latter stages of the game, except for one defining moment. The Hawthorn team of the 70’s was renowned for its tough but fair style, featuring the likes of Dipper and Lethal Leigh, so when I latched onto a skinny kid trying to break a pack and put him face first in the mud right in front of the coach’s box, a mark was put next to my name. Maybe it was a tick, more likely a question mark.
In the changing rooms after the match, the manager of the Under-19 team read out a list of names, and when mine was called out I found myself invited down to training the following week. I couldn’t believe my ears, couldn’t believe my luck. On the lockers around me were the names of champions such as Graham Arthur, John Kennedy and Peter Crimmins, and I had been asked to train with this club, the reigning premiers. Maybe I really was a great footballer!
They must have been desperate. The 1979 season was almost over and Hawthorn’s Under-19 side was not going to make the finals. The team trained on Monday and Wednesday nights, away from the seniors who were there on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but it was exciting enough just to catch a glimpse of Leigh Matthews or Don Scott in the gym or to stand at close proximity to coach Bob Keddie over a hotdog after training.
I had seen Bob Keddie kick four second-half goals to help Hawthorn win the 1971 flag – my first Grand Final and a classic match. He exerted a powerful presence at close proximity and it was daunting for a young player to hold his intense stare. I didn’t think he had noticed me out amongst the witches hats and he seemed to favour certain players who looked like they were destined to go up through the ranks.
I was issued a pair of Hawthorn football shorts and a pair of yellow and brown striped socks, even one of the brown vee-neck football jumpers the senior players wore around the club and on match days. I didn’t think the fantasy was going to go any further than that, but on the Thursday night before the third-last match of the season the phone rang at home and to my disbelieving ears the team manager was telling me I was playing for Hawthorn on Saturday.
The Under-19’s used to play home matches at Glenferrie, and away games on vacant VFL grounds. So, for instance, when Hawthorn seniors played a home game against Footscray at Waverley, the Under-19’s would have played their away game against Footscray at the vacant Western Oval. This week however, my debut match was to be different.
The VFL had recently begun experimenting with the concept of matches being played on a hitherto sacred Sunday, starting with televising reserves matches in a timeslot formerly reserved for Epic Theatre. It just so happened that this week Hawthorn’s reserves were playing Essendon on Sunday, therefore the Under-19’s were brought in to play the curtain-raiser before the big match. It was exciting enough to be playing my first game for a VFL club, now my first game was to be played in front of a big crowd at Windy Hill before a real match. I could not believe my luck.
In the late 70’s Hawthorn and Essendon were establishing a rivalry that culminated in the 80’s when they played three classic Grand Finals against one another. Essendon’s team pitted such greats as Simon Madden, Paul Van der Haar and a young Timmy Watson against the likes of Scott, Matthews and Michael Tuck, so a big crowd was guaranteed.
On the morning of the match I was too nervous to eat what I thought was the standard footballer’s breakfast of the day – steak and eggs – and Dad’s sage advice was that no matter how I played I should savour the moment. I wish I’d listened. All I can remember was running out onto the ground terrified that I was going to make an idiot of myself in front of thousands of people.
I can recall nothing of the match itself other than my first kick in VFL football. I received a pass in the backline and turned to look down the ground for a teammate to pass it to. To my horror there was nothing but a big empty space. I mentioned earlier that I wasn’t particularly fast, so running with the ball down the wing wasn’t an option.
I could see a teammate leading way off in the distance, too far for me to be able to hit them on the chest. I had a neat kicking action but I was never able to achieve great distance. It must have been a timing thing. There was nothing for it but to go for a torpedo, a risky strategy at the best of times but even tougher on the run with an opponent bearing down on me. I had no better option though, and off it went, a wobbly, mongrel punt that fell ten metres short of its intended target and broke right, bouncing over the boundary line. As an omen, it was inauspicious.
But I had done enough to get invited back the following week, and the week after that. The season ended with our having lost more games than we had won and I thought, well, that’s that; my VFL career, done and dusted.
My captain for those last three games of the 1979 season was a courageous defender named Peter Schwab, who we all knew was destined for greater things. An exemplary and inspiring leader, I wish I’d played more games with him, but he was too old for Under-19’s the following year, as was our reclusive centre half-back, Chris Mew. His replacement for the 1980 season was a 16-year old grammar school boy named Chris Langford, more mature for his young age than I would ever be, already solidly built and not a bad player, besides.
I was invited back to training before the 1980 season, I presume, because they hadn’t been able to tell whether I had any real ability in the three games I had played. Hawthorn of that era was renowned for their patience in bringing up-and-comers through the system, with most players playing two or three seasons in the reserves before playing a senior game.
Over the course of the 1980 season I played just about every position on the ground, the club giving every kid playing in its colours the chance to show them where their talents lay. I was a reasonably tight defender, but preferred the freedom of a wingman or the glamour of the forward line. The highlight of my career at Hawthorn was a speccy in the goalsquare at Glenferrie that had my teammates talking at training all through the next week. However, the brief flirtation with fame could not mask the fact that it was my one goal for the match at full-forward.
I increasingly spent more and more time on the bench as the coach found our team worked more effectively whilst I wasn’t there.
I enjoyed the experience while it lasted. We played at all the major grounds – Western Oval, Princes Park, Moorabbin, Kardinia Park, Punt Road, the Lakeside Oval, the Junction Oval, Victoria Park and Waverley. I soaked it up at all the club functions, wore the club colours and once was even asked for an autograph from a young fan who must have thought I was someone else.
Around half way through the season a skinny kid from Frankston arrived one night at training. The word in the changerooms was that this kid could really play, and he already seemed to know where he was going. At 16, Dermot Brereton already had the cocky swagger that became his trademark as a champion in the years to come. Everyone else was already out on the training track so I was asked to take him through our warm-up drill on his first night at the club. I hold to this as my lasting legacy for football – l gave Dermie his start.
Looking back, I see the age of eighteen as being a challenging time for an aspiring young footballer. You reach the age where you are able to vote, to drive and to drink in pubs. Girls are grabbing one’s attention with increasing frequency and, amongst all of this confusing stuff going on, a young footballer is also expected to decide which way he wants to go.
Our team was typical of any in the game over the decades, being made up of a number of precociously talented individuals, some raw players with skills that could take them anywhere, battlers whose strength and determination was superior to their ability and a few others such as myself, who were barely getting away with it.
I saw many talented young players at Hawthorn give in to the many social temptations while lesser players committed to becoming professional footballers. Several of my teammates who had the ability to go all the way preferred the party life and played out their careers starring in lesser competitions. I can only surmise they have been dogged ever since by the nagging question: what if?
Chris Langford was a talented footballer but he became a 300-game, All-Australian, multiple-premiership player because he shut out all distractions in pursuit of his driving ambition. I have dined out on the notion that I may too have five premiership medallions to my name had I also chosen to follow that path.
But the truth was I didn’t have that ambition, nor the discipline required to realise it. I didn’t like training much either, equating hard physical work with pain. Whereas the committed footballer embraces pain as a necessary step on the path towards their ultimate goal, I preferred to step over that one.
I remember one occasion at training where in the gym we were asked to hold a particularly awkward position for as long as we could. I was holding the position until I thought the coach felt we had done enough, then realised I was the only one who had broken. Bob Keddie looked at me with those powerful eyes of his and my face burned with shame. It was a test and I had failed. A few minutes later that shame drove me to outlast the rest of the group in a similar exercise, but the damage had been done. I learned a lesson that has stayed with me to this day, that physical pain is only fleeting, but it was yet another cross against my name and a step closer to the revolving door showing me the way out.
My final game as a VFL footballer was in the penultimate match of the season, at Glenferrie against Melbourne, the team I have followed passionately all my life. At some stage in the first half I was under a ball that hung high in the sky and seemed to take an eternity to come down to me. The next thing I knew I was in a hospital bed surrounded by my family and a few friends. I thought it would sound heroic if the first thing I asked was whether we’d won, but by the fifth or sixth time I asked that same question they sent for the doctor to ask if I would ever be the same again.
Apparently I never had the opportunity to complete that mark, having being run through in the meantime by a beloved Demon opponent who, I now realise, can only have been trying to do the game of football a favour. I made it to half time where I alarmed one of my teammates with a stream of gibberish, then when I walked over to the fence to wave to a group of friends on the terrace in the midst of play during the third quarter, the coach realised I should be taken off to hospital.
I never completed that mark but I had completed my glorious VFL career. The following week my concussion meant I watched the final match of the season in the coaches box. At our end of season function I was thanked for my services and told I could keep my club shorts and socks, but not the jumper. A few weeks later I flew off to backpack around Canada and the US for four months, an experience that changed the course of my life.
I played one more season for my local club – which only served to show me how much more I enjoyed watching football than being punched by some suburban thug on a Saturday afternoon – before hanging up my boots for good.
As they say, you are a long time retired, and in the many years since I have often found myself looking back and wondering what might have been had I chosen the other path and committed myself to football. And, let’s face it, had I been any good. But who wants to wreck one’s reverie with truth and honesty?
So, how old do you have to be before you finally give up on your AFL dream and realise the opportunity has well and truly passed you by? I think I held onto mine longer than most other failed footballers. I reasoned that for as long as there were players my age still playing – heck, Tucky was still running out well into his late 30’s – it was still feasible for me to make my debut. OK, as unlikely as it may seem for a club to select a 37-year old in the rookie draft, I found myself at that age lying flat on my back in the Malian Sahara at 1am one night wondering if it were still possible.
The truck had run out of fuel and while the driver headed over the dunes in the vague direction of help, about forty of us passengers were left to their own devices beneath the stars. I had recently contracted malaria and a combination of the disease and the extreme medication required to fight it had me in a deliriously carefree state. I hadn’t eaten or slept well for days. As I lay there in the sand looking up at the stars I felt as if I no longer cared what would become of me. I fixed on one particular star that I thought was me looking down on my body and soon it was nourishing me with memories.
The star morphed into a series of symbolic entities from my past, eventually becoming my football career, and soon I felt myself figuratively reaching out for it to touch me – as God does to Adam in Michelangelo’s ceiling – and anoint me with the same sort of freakish talent that, say, Dermie had been blessed with. At the same time I saw the truth, that freakish talent alone had never got any player a game.
What was required was talent and belief in equal measure. The great players of the game have a strong sense of belief that matches their ability. All of a sudden, out there in that huge desert night, I made peace with myself. It wasn’t my lack of talent that had failed me, but the realisation that I had believed all along that I would fail. When you are honest with yourself and know who you are, you can have no regrets.
Two days later I was convalescing in a hotel room when I heard on the BBC World Service that the Kangaroos had beaten the Swans in the Grand Final, and a few weeks later I was on a rooftop terrace overlooking a Swahili town in Kenya when I returned to my fantasy of playing AFL football. Ah, where’s the harm in it?
I would return home with this new sense of believe to guide me and walk into the Dees clubrooms, a pair of boots hanging over my shoulder, to ask for a game. Just like they did in the old days. They were in an injury crisis and needed me just to make up the numbers. I kicked ten goals on debut. They had to be crazy to consider drafting a 37-year old rookie but I kept kicking bags in the reserves week after week until they could deny me no more.
You know the story from here: a season of courage and inspiration culminating in a Coleman Medal, a Brownlow and a stirring, come-from-behind Grand Final victory over Collingwood, the first flag for a generation of enraptured fans. I am carried off the ground and announce my retirement, mission accomplished.
In my mind’s eye I can see myself jostling opponents, taking strong grabs over packs, dishing the ball out to passing teammates from the midst of heavy traffic. Recently a close friend gave me the harsh truth that I was always an “outside player”. It was as if a balloon popped inside me. As if I hadn’t enough to contend with already – being short on talent and belief – now this.

About Peter Miers

I like football and I like people who appreciate that it's so much more than just a game. I like writing and I like people who appreciate writing about football.


  1. Peter, for an interesting read on this topic “Bounce – How Champions are Made” by Matthew Syed. Highly recommended as an explanation for/of the many ‘couldabeen’ moments in life…

  2. Pamela Sherpa says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this Peter. What an experience to look back on.
    You can only do what you can do- make the most of things and enjoy along the way. Savour the memories.

  3. Pete, well written, I thoroughly enjoyed the piece. Whilst your career may be over, you can keep practicing those torpedoes. Rex

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